A Story of the Dragon Clan
by Brent Morgan
“Steel never lies, nor deceives, nor hides the way before you. In the sword, you can find truth.”
- Kakita’s “The Sword”
Standing in the garden of story’s and stone, the
Mirumoto’s movements were fluid and sharp, his hands moving his two blades
with a conviction and control that whispered of hours longer than most could
count. Watching the motion from the
shade of one of the statues that marked the edges of the courtyard, the
Crane’s sharp eyes watched the style of Niten, his face hidden by the
Standing in the garden of story’s and stone, the Mirumoto’s movements were fluid and sharp, his hands moving his two blades with a conviction and control that whispered of hours longer than most could count. Watching the motion from the shade of one of the statues that marked the edges of the courtyard, the Crane’s sharp eyes watched the style of Niten, his face hidden by the lengthening darkness.
Nikkan was not a duelist; his right knee bore a wound that had twisted it long ago. Normally, the subtle motions of the sword would bring the Mirumoto to stinging tears and great pain. But now, the Kakita could see a new strength in his companion’s face, and a strength that no pain could deny.
As the evening slipped away to nightfall and the sentries of the castle began their long night upon the walls, Koshin finally watched as the swords were reluctantly lowered. Nikkan’s breath was sharp and ragged, for he had gone far beyond his limits.
The Crane understood well what that meant. Since he had returned from his mission to the Phoenix lands, the Sentinel had been moody, restless. Koshin knew better than to think that this day had truly been about the sword. Something had happened there, among his lost brethren.
Something that he could not simply accept with silence. It required something more: a kind of spiritual punishment, atonement. For whatever reason, the samurai needed to torture himself, if for no other reason that to give some outlet to a rage that he could not stop any other way.
It was a kind of escape that the Kakita had learned much of in the last few years. It had made him what he was, and taught him much more.
As the Mirumoto sipped water from a nearby barrel, the Crane rose, his body moving with an easy gait. As he neared, Nikkan lifted his tired face, a weary smile slipping onto his sweaty face. “Shouldn’t you be with Taehime-chan now, Koshin-san?”
Despite the teasing tone, nothing in the Crane’s face hinted at anything like mirth…or geisha, “What happened among the Agasha, Nikkan-san?”
“For a Crane,” Nikkan said as he set the ladle of water back. “You have little subtlety.”
To that, Koshin tucked his twin katana into his obi, turned and slipped back into the shadowed garden. “Tell me your story later, Nikkan-san. I will still be here to listen, whenever you are ready to speak of it.”
Watching the Crane vanish into the story garden, the Mirumoto smiled a little. Maybe he could tell the story, one day…but first the Sentinel had duties to perform. Duties to the Lady of the Dragon…but now there was a second mission, a duty that he had let Hitomi herself challenge for too long.
After all, Nikkan’s mind was sharp,
and it had found wisdom, in the Phoenix lands…
* * *
Standing in the light of the morning, shugenja waited patiently. Dressed in the crimson and gold robes of the Phoenix Clan, they stood with a quiet reservation, and within the nearby shrine, the measured tones of the samurai recited the words to the Seven Fortunes, as if asking for their wisdom in the trial that was to come.
Moments later the samurai stepped from the small shrine into the sun. He was dressed in the golden mail of the family of the Mirumoto, and a simple hat of woven straw, like the kind that the traveling monks wore. It was an odd combination of wealth and humility, but none of that did anything to hide the angry face beneath that hat.
The foremost of the shugenja met the gaze, not with anger, but with understanding. He was not a young man, but his body stood straight and ready. His head was shaved like a monk, revealing the tattoo of a dragon over either ear. Those eyes, pinched close and yet filled with life and fire, waited for the samurai to begin.
“You are Agasha Gennai?” The voice was measured and controlled…though the word “Agasha” was sharp enough to have been spat across the field.
With wrinkled brow, the shugenja nodded. “Hai, Mirumoto-san.”
“I am Mirumoto Nikkan, sent by the order of Lady Hitomi-sama.” Hitomi was another word spat, though the newborn Phoenix was unsure about what kind of anger had truly spawned it. “I have been sent by order of my Lady, to tell you that you are welcome in Dragon lands no longer. Your business there is finished.”
Bowing his head, the aged man turned to face the rest of his family. “Go and tell Shiba-san that all is well here. I will finish any business with the Mirumoto alone.”
Watching the shugenja vanish down the hill and into the Phoenix woods, Nikkan frowned. “How many spearmen were hidden in the bushes, Gennai? You must think very highly of yourself, to think Lady Hitomi would stoop to an ambush to deal with you.” Nikkan was not a cruel samurai, and Gennai could see the words in his mouth fighting those deeper in his soul.
“The Agasha have betrayed your Lady’s most important virtue,” Gennai said simply. “We have much to be wary of, Nikkan-san.”
Nikkan wanted to leave, to spit on the shugenja, perhaps even kick him or strike him with his saya, but the young man’s curiosity was a greater pull, as the Agasha thought that it would.
“My Lady’s most treasured virtue?”
Gennai nodded, his old legs aching slightly from standing long in the same position. “Do you not know what it is, Nikkan-san? That is why the Agasha have made the decision that we have. If you wish to understand, rather than hate, then come and sit with me in the shade beneath the shrine, and we will talk of such things.”
With that, the shugenja started slowly down the hill. The samurai of the Dragon hesitated, only for a moment, but then he rushed after him, his armor now lighter than his heart.
“I wish to understand, Gennai-sama.”
The Phoenix smiled slightly, wrinkles
forming on his brow. “Remember that you made this choice, Mirumoto-san, once
the day is done…”
Had the Dragon sent men, they would have been crushed. Concealed beneath both magic and clever camouflage, the samurai of the Shiba cast wary glances at the Mirumoto, as he sat in the shade of the trees beside the Agasha and his young Isawa scribe.
Bowing as he took up his tea, Gennai sipped at it with quiet relaxation. After a moment of silence in the shade of the trees, the shugenja set his tea aside, his eyes suddenly weary as he began to speak.
Raising his head, Nikkan blinked. His youthful face was not confused, but rather it waited, hoping that more words were to come.
“I once heard your Lady, speaking to the dark one, Kokujin.” Gennai could see the conflict in the Mirumoto, the anger at the Taint that Kokujin brought into Dragon lands. “She told him that loyalty makes of people slaves…and that it was the only virtue that she would need.”
“I serve her because I believe in her…” Nikkan’s heart was not in his words, and so Gennai moved his voice along, not out of spite, but out of a hope to add in understanding.
“Did you support her, Mirumoto-san, when she drove away your kin, her own brother?”
“Did you support her, when she ordered the deaths of the Togashi, and drove Hoshi from our lands?”
“Did you support her, when she brought Kokujin into the clan, and allowed the Taint to walk your halls?”
Finally, Nikkan could not bear it anymore. Despite himself, the Mirumoto rose stiffly, causing the young scribe to step back in sudden fear. His hands clenched and unclenched, uncertain of what to do next. Slowly, the warrior found his voice, “I have supported my Lady…always.”
Too late, he realized what he himself had said.
“Like I said, Nikkan…loyalty.” Gennai had not moved himself an inch, and the tea was still in his hand. Watching as the samurai face drained itself of heat and anger, the shugenja continued, his voice little more than a whisper with the worried eyes of the Shiba yojimbo again on Nikkan’s back.
“There is more to being a samurai than loyalty, Nikkan. Only the Scorpion believes that loyalty alone is enough. The Lion demand courage. The Crane need balance and trust. And the Phoenix, Nikkan, demands understanding. Shiba-sama wishes to understand us, and we wish to understand her, and add our understanding to their own.”
“We told them, when we knelt and swore our lives to Tsukune-sama, Nikkan. We did not come here to join them, but to leave Hitomi. I cannot serve with loyalty alone…I am a man, even in the trappings of one that is holy. My heart, my honor…all this stands against the blind loyalty that Hitomi asked of us.”
Nikkan stood silent, his body drained of everything. There was no strength left in him. He was a paper tiger now, wrapped in mail and with swords, but with no more spirit to hold him up. The Agasha stood, placing the Mirumoto’s hat back into his hands.
“Your Lady’s final battle draws near, Nikkan-san, and she cannot fight the coming battle alone. This much, I know.” The Phoenix nodded once, “She will need people like you, Nikkan-san. Temper your loyalty with honor, so that you never betray yourself again.”
“I must go,” The Mirumoto bowed once, and then he was gone.
Standing against the darkness of the night, Gennai searched the hills, wondering how far the Mirumoto had to go yet tonight.
Gennai knew that, in a way, he had been wrong in leaving. The clan was more than who the Champion was…it was the people. No one, not even one with the power of a kami could change that. If the Dragon Clan was to become what they had once been, then only the people of the clan would change that, they alone could.
The Agasha had lost the chance, forever…but they had gained another.
Once he had heard a fellow Dragon say something of the Phoenix, something that Gennai felt still rang true. The words hung on the wind, a breath whispered into it by the new Master of Air.
“They are brothers reborn in the fires
of knowledge. We are both seeking
the same thing, but our roads are different.
Sometimes they cross, however, and then we regain our bearings, learn how
close we are and – sometimes – decide to switch paths.”
Standing in the darkness of the night, the Sentinel knelt before his Lady. Hitomi’s one eye burned golden in the darkness, and her obsidian form shimmered against the starlight. Nikkan spoke quietly, halfway in hesitation, but his Lady heard every word.
Finally, all his whispers were spent, and Nikkan raised his eyes, looking into her own as the daimyo knelt to see him better. Her face was resigned to whatever fate stood before her, and Hitomi’s voice mingled with the dancing voices of the land.
“There is more to the path ahead than you know, Nikkan…it is a path that loyalty alone cannot walk. Remember that they need you…I need you.”
“Not for your loyalty, Nikkan…for your honor.”
“In the end, Mirumoto, that is the only thing that separates us from the very darkness that we fight.”
With that, Nikkan was gone, returned to his duty with a passion, and a drive to understand that had been born from his death at Gennai’s words. Hitomi lingered in the darkness, watching until even her eyes could follow him no more.
“And what of you, Crane? What do you know now of our loyalty?”
Still hidden in the darkness, Koshin rose and walked before the Lady of Dragons, to bow where Nikkan had kneeled. “I do not understand why you brought me to see this, Lady. I am not your servant…and I could not hear his words.”
“You came here to understand you mother’s people,” Hitomi nodded. “Remember this, always.”
“Remember that they still serve me, not out of something as easily controlled as loyalty. They serve me, fight and die for me, for something more important than all of the loyalty the Lion or the Scorpion possess.”
Leaving the Crane alone in the moonlight, Hitomi’s eyes shined once more, before the magic of the kami carried her away.
“They believe in me.”
The Old Moon rises, One Final Time